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Vital Stories

Seven Questions with Olivier van Beemen, Award Winning Journalist and Author of “Heineken in Africa”

“In Africa, multinational corporations often face little restrictive regulation when it comes to marketing, which gives them almost limitless opportunities to market their products.”

Olivier van Beemen, Dutch journalist and author, at the Vital Talks event on Sep. 6. Also pictured are moderator, Diana R. Silver, Associate Professor of Global Public Health and Public Health Policy at the College of Global Public Health at New York University, and speaker, David Jernigan, a professor in the Department of Health Law, Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health.

In contrast to the growing response to other drivers of noncommunicable diseases, too little attention has been paid to alcohol policy. As a result, it is left to the alcohol industry to drive how alcohol is regulated, viewed and consumed.

Alcohol is a leading contributor to death and disability worldwide, yet the global public health response to the harms of alcohol use is not comparable with alcohol’s social, economic and health burden. Vital Strategies’ fourth Vital Talks event focused on the health and social impact of the alcohol industry, as well as its marketing practices across the world. We sat down with Olivier van Beemen, Dutch investigative journalist and author, to learn from his most recent book “Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed” (Hurst, 2019), for which he won the most prestigious prize in Dutch journalism.

To watch the full recording of the September 6 Vital Talks event with Olivier van Beemen in a conversation with David Jernigan, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Health Law, Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health, and moderator Diana R. Silver, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Global Public Health and Public Health Policy at the College of Global Public Health at New York University, visit:  http://www.vitalstrategies.org/vitaltalks/

1. What are some examples of the alcohol industry’s marketing practices in Africa?

In Africa, multinational corporations often face little restrictive regulation when it comes to marketing, which gives them almost limitless opportunities to market their products. In Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I saw whole districts painted in the color of Heineken’s mainstream brand Primus. We’re not only talking about bars and sales outlets, but also pharmacies, barber shops, a police station and a school bus, which were all bearing the brand logo. In Africa, Heineken is also using controversial health claims to promote its product. The company claims its beer prevents many diseases, that you will live longer if you consume it moderately and that beer is part of a healthy life-style. In Nigeria, they’ve organized several Beer & Health Conferences to spread this message. At one of those, moderate drinking was defined as drinking 1.5 liters of beer (just over 50 fl oz) each day. 

2. How are the tactics used by the alcohol industry different in African countries compared to other low- and middle-income countries, and compared to high-income countries?

I think my investigation shows that a big company can show its true character in Africa. In the West, multinational corporations also plead for more self-regulation and they often claim to have the same interests as governments or the general public, pointing at their sustainability efforts. But in Europe and North America, they usually have to deal with laws and enforcement, watchdogs (NGOs, press…) and a critical public. And even if these checks and balances are far from perfect in the West, they often simply don’t exist in Africa. This means companies can take more risks and often find out they get away with malpractice or crimes. When I uncovered the widespread sexual abuse of young women who promote Heineken brands in Africa, Heineken’s CEO acknowledged that the use of such women in Western Europe would be unacceptable. But he pointed at “cultural differences” and stated that he considers #MeToo a “western phenomenon.” So Heineken accepts putting women at risk in Africa, whereas it doesn’t in some other parts of the world.

3. What are some the key findings from your research for this book? 

The book shows structural malpractice, for long periods of time, often taking place in many different countries. But it’s not just immoral corporate behavior, Heineken probably also got involved in serious crimes. Based on my findings, it can be argued that Heineken even got complicit in crimes against humanity, war crimes and in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I’ll give you the example of Burundi, a country under a ruthless dictatorship where many people have disappeared in recent years and where torturing is a common practice. In this country, Heineken’s tax money serves to pay the civil servants who commit the crimes against their own people: the police officers, soldiers and secret service agents. Heineken knows it’s playing a crucial role to make this possible, but doesn’t act. And let’s not forget to mention that in Burundi, the chairman of the board of Heineken is also one of the most important judges of that nation.

4. You spoke about how Heineken has become more than just a brand in Africa. What does that mean? How did this happen?

In the Netherlands, we know Heineken to be an average beer: nothing really wrong with the taste but nothing special either. It’s the marketing and story-telling that has made it a “premium” brand for which people around the globe are willing to pay a higher price. They’ve done something similar in Africa: they use slogans like “Brewing a Better World” and “Growing Together in Africa” and make people believe that their business will contribute to economic growth and development in the host nations, whereas my investigation shows the opposite. But many people like these feel-good stories and some governments, like my own, think of it as a win-win situation. Heineken’s commercial success is good for the Dutch economy and officials claim it’s also good for Africa. Therefore, our government is subsidizing some of Heineken’s investments in Africa.

5. Why did you decide to focus on one company, Heineken, in your book?

First, their headquarters are only a 10-minute bicycle ride away from my home, so it’s easy to keep an eye on them. Seriously, I think it’s better to know a lot about one company than little about many companies. My book is a case-study on a multinational company in Africa. If you do a thorough investigation on other big companies operating in the developing or emerging world, you’ll probably find many similarities, especially if you look at Heineken’s direct competitors in Africa: AB Inbev, Diageo and Castel.

6. What role can journalism play in exposing the alcohol industry and its tactics?

Journalism can and should play an important role in exposing any industry and their tactics, and even more so, if the core business of a particular industry is harmful to societies. Unfortunately, what you see these days is companies spending more and more money on communication (they want to “control the story”), whereas the number of journalists at many news outlets has significantly decreased. So the game is rigged, but this means that journalists have to work even harder, and should be more motivated in their search for the truth.

7. What was the biggest challenge in your six years of research on the alcohol industry?

One of the major difficulties is the excellent reputation of Heineken. It’s not only a powerful company with strong ties to government, but also a company many people really like, especially in the Netherlands. As the person who’s bringing the bad news, I’m considered, by many, as the one who’s spoiling the party. Heineken had managed to create this great narrative of a commercially successful company bringing joy and sustainable growth to Africa. Now many people find it hard to accept that this is largely a myth.

Olivier van Beemen is an investigative journalist from Amsterdam and the author of the book Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed (2019). He won the Tegel for this investigation, the most prestigious award in Dutch journalism, and got nominated for several other prizes. His work has been translated in English, French and Italian. Earlier in his career, Van Beemen was a correspondent in France for several leading Dutch and Belgian news media. He currently publishes in newspapers such as Le Monde and NRC Handelsblad. Follow Olivier on Twitter @oli4vb